Is the handheld shoe finally on the other foot?

Over the last two weeks the gaming press has been dominated by handheld news. Firstly owing to Nintendo’s 3DS conference in Amsterdam, where full details on the console were announced, including pricing, games, and more on the system’s capability. The big N’s big blow out event was top of the gaming new agenda for almost a whole week, and why not? It’s big news.

And then last week, along came the announcement of gaming’s worst kept secret: Sony’s successor to the PSP – currently dubbed the NGP. There’s still a lot of details with regards to Sony’s latest offering that likely won’t surface for a while. Chief amongst those is a price point and a release date. But what information Sony did make available is absolutely astonishing. Sony have once again created a piece of hardware that’s nothing short of incredible.

Now when it comes to Sony and new hardware, it’s never surprising when the company rolls out a sleek looking piece of tech that seems years ahead of it’s time. That’s what Sony always does. Building great hardware has always been the company’s strength.

But when it comes to things like software, and good business decisions, Sony generally get themselves into hot water. It’s not good enough to simply wheel out an impressive console if that console then turns into a flop. Lets look at the original PSP as an example: Way ahead of its time, technically superb, and in posession of the UMD as a brand new media format. And yet in it’s early years the console tanked. In fact, even though the PSP is the only handheld I can think of to go against Nintendo and keep going for this long, and even though the console is now in posession of a decent software library, I’d still venture to say that the PSP is still a big flop now, especially when you compare it to just how well the DS continues to do.

I think that the NGP could truly be different though. Obviously, it’s still early days. There are still a lot of ways Sony can go wrong between now and whenever the NGP gets released. But I have a sneaking suspicion they won’t. It seems like the company may finally be making some savvy business decisions.

Firstly, lets look at the hardware itself. Previously Sony’s approach to building something new has just been to build it bigger and better than what its competitors can offer. This approach doesn’t really work anymore. Nintendo has proven that with the DS, and with the Wii especially. Yes, people want bigger and better, but more than that, people are suckers for gimmicks and innovation, which Sony have never really had a go at before. But with the NGP it seems that Sony is having a try at experimenting with new ways to build a handheld. Feature wise, the NGP has a giant touch pad on the back, a microphone, cameras on the front and back, and SIXAXIS motion controls built in (also, on top of these innovative touches, Sony’s still gone down it’s tried and tested route of building a machine with mammoth power. A handheld that can run PS3 games? Yeah, that’s not tempting the shit out of me.).

But the impressive hardware isn’t the only feather the NGP has in its cap. Sony have already announced that a number of pretty important franchises are coming to the NGP around launch. One of the biggest failures of the PSP was poor third party support for games, and this time around it seems that Sony is committed to not making the same mistake again. A solid launch line up will help build early support, and hopefully Sony will be able to keep that momentum going further into the handheld’s lifespan.

But that’s not the best software decision Sony have made for the NGP. They’ve also announced something that nobody saw coming. Something which may well be a complete gamechanger. That something is the Playstation Suite. In a nutshell, the Suite is a development platform for use on both the NGP and on Android phones. And to put it simply, it may be Sony’s best idea since they put a DVD drive in the PS2.

The suite’s a smart move for two reasons. Firstly, it will create a framework for Android phones that can rival Apple’s app store to some extent. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why that’s a good idea, apps are an incredibly lucrative business, and currently the Android system doesn’t have any kind of universal means of distributing apps, Sony may be about to provide that, and it will obviously be very lucrative. Moreover, by putting content out on Android phones, Sony is extending the Playstation brand beyond its own hardware. In a way, they’re beating Nintendo at their own game, and going for the casual gaming market. When Nintendo went for the casual gaming crowd with the Wii, they basically started printing money for themselves. And now Sony could be about to do the same by getting a slice of the cash all the people who download a couple of of games to play on their phones pay out.

This whole process is a two-way street, which leads me to the other reason it’s a great idea. Not only does the Suite give Sony that brand extension, but it will also work to draw customers and developers alike to Sony’s own hardware. Right now you have a situation where there are loads of developers working exclusively on phone games and apps, and there’s loads of money in it. Apps are the new craze, and Sony would be foolish to not try and do something that would attract the app crowd to develop for the NGP. But instead they’ve gone one step better. They don’t need to try and get app developers on board with the NGP, thanks to the Playstation Suite. Instead, they can just keep developing things for phones, except it just so happens that if they do so using the Suite’s framework, all of that content will also be made instantly available for the NGP, with no need for any kind of extra fooling around. And then there’s the added bonus that people who may start off by casually downloading a few PS Suite games to their phones may then find themselves thinking they’d quite like a dedicated device that plays those things in higher quality. Meanwhile, the execs at Sony sit back laughing at their new money printing press.

Meanwhile, on the Nintendo side of things, it seems like for the first time in the company’s history, the handheld division are actually making bad decisions.

Now, Nintendo is such a powerhouse that I’m sure these decisions won’t really matter at all. Infact, I’m sure that the 3DS will come out, smash some sales records, and continue Nintendo’s handheld market dominance.

But the company may just alienate a lot of people on the way.

When it comes to those bad decisions I mentioned before, Nintendo have made two of them. The first of which is the decision to region lock games.

Region locking isn’t anything new when it comes to gaming, it’s been in place pretty much since the medium began. But this is a first for a Nintendo handheld. Up until now the games have always been region free. But at a glance it doesn’t seem like such a big deal, I’ll just have to buy my games from the same region my DS is from. Except that region is Europe – and when it comes to games on Nintendo handhelds and Europe, Europe gets fucked. Admittedly, these days things are nowhere near as bad as when I was a kid. I remember sometimes having to wait as much as three years after a US release for a game to finally make it out here. Sometimes they just didn’t come out.

These days Europe isn’t treated with such disdain from publishers. But there are still games that don’t make it out here, or that we have to wait ages for. Generally speaking they’re more niche titles that don’t tend to have a mass appeal. So it’s the core gaming audience that’s going to be most hit by this.

So financially speaking, since Nintendo’s largest source of funds these days comes from the more casual crowd, maybe it’s not such a dumb move, there’s probably not that much money to be lost. But why do it at all? There’s an argument to be made that the import market skews sales figures a bit, but that’s no big deal, because all things being equal the worldwide number of sales will still be the same, no matter what territory the game was bought from. Except in the case of games that don’t get released in all territories. Like pretty much anything published by Atlus. In cases like that, the import market can actually help create sales that won’t otherwise happen. And more sales means Nintendo rakes in more money from lisencing fees.

So right now by implementing this Nintendo’s got a pissed off section of  customers, and is also fucking over the developers and publishers of niche games, whilst also losing out a bit of money on lisencing in the process. Please tell me if there’s something I’m failing to grasp about why this is actually a good decision, because right now I’m not seeing it.

Then there’s the matter of pricing. And this is the biggy. 3DS games will cost £40 at launch. Quite frankly, that’s going to piss everybody off. As I said earlier, I’m sure the 3DS will be a success no matter what, and I know for a fact hundreds of thousands of people will go and pay that price for games. But maybe they’ll start thinking twice about it. In fact, I’m sure that this is a move which will drive sales down over the long term.

I’m willing to make an educated guess and say that most of the people who own a DS also own at least one home console. If it comes down to the choice of what to spend £40 on, and one of them is a handheld title that looks like something that came out six years ago, and the other is an AAA blockbuster with explosions that are unparalleled in their realism, big name actors providing the voices and likenesses, and some decent online options, I’m picking the latter. In a time where across the globe people are tightening their belts, people want the most value for money. Handheld games don’t often compete with console games on that front. Handheld games mitigate that fact by coming at a much cheaper price, making them appealing.

What makes it an even more abysmal decision is that people will realise that the increased price point is motivated by greed. Yes, Nintendo are a business, and as a business their objective is first and foremost to make some money. But this needs to be done fairly in a way where people don’t feel like they’re getting fucked over.

It’s long been the case that the cost of development for console games has been going up, and perhaps the cost of games should go up to reflect that. And yet it hasn’t. If Rockstar can employ thousands of staff to create GTA4, which basically involved them designing an entire city, all whilst not having to add £10 to the price, why does Nintendo need to add £10 to Dr Kawishima’s 3D cookbook weight loss psychic ability training bootcamp? Or to Ocarina of Time, an N64 game that they’ve made look slightly more pretty? These are really simple games using age old tech, and the fact that they are in 3D is not adding such a great financial burden to the companies that make these games that the price point needs to go up by so much.

Ultimately, there’s still a lot the remains to be seen. And only time will tell what happens to the next generation of handhelds. Sony still have plenty of time to get things wrong in their usual bungling fashion, and Nintendo could wow us with a boatload of amazing new games that make us forget their follies. But at least for now, for the first time I can ever recall, the shoe seems to be on the other foot with regards to which company is making good decisions. Right now there’s only one handheld I’m excited for. And for the first time it isn’t something made by Nintendo.

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    • Hunam
    • February 1st, 2011

    I’d love to know what Atlus themselves make of this.

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